Bioengineered brick wins 2010 Next Generation design contest

Bricks are responsible for 13 billion pounds of carbon dioxide every year. A young American architect has invented a bioengineered brick. It’s grown rather than baked.

You might not realize how much energy it takes to make a brick. Clay is melted at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a day in order to produce a building material that’s incredibly common around the world. 1.23 trillion (trillion!) bricks are manufactured every year. That adds up to a lot of carbon dioxide – 13 billion pounds of carbon dioxide per year. That’s the reason why a young American architect named Ginger Krieg Dosier took it upon herself to invent a new way of making bricks – a brick that’s grown rather than baked.

The bioengineered brick is this year’s winner of Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation design competition, announced this week. The competition was looking for a capital F “Fix,” which it described as  practical, research-based design solutions to practical problems, or proposals for new materials, building types or methods, and so on. I have to say that I’m skeptical about what manages to take the label of “sustainable design.” Much of it seems like either pie-in-the-sky dreaming, or consume-your-way-to-green luxuries. But the great thing about this brand sustainable design is that it takes a global problem, and reduces it down to basic chemistry. That is, chemistry Dosier taught herself, by reading textbooks and experimenting.

The brick sprouts from a mixture of sand, common bacteria, calcium chloride, and urea (common to urine). Suzanne LeBarre of Metropolis writes, “The process, known as microbial-induced calcite precipitation, or MICP, uses the microbes on sand to bind the grains together like glue with a chain of chemical reactions. The resulting mass resembles sandstone but, depending on how it’s made, can reproduce the strength of fired-clay brick or even marble.”

As a science journalist, I read about new, greenified inventions a few times a day, everyday (or at least it seems like it). Identifying  brick carbon dioxide emissions as a problem isn’t a new development, nor is the attempt to make a greener brick. Even the idea of growing materials isn’t uncommon these days. It’s more about the unusual process of creation.

Dosier, trained as an architect, had no background in materials or biology. But she became interested in what materials are made of after getting rid of most of her material possessions, and began experimenting with basic crystal-growing kits. From there, she went deeper, finding mentors to guide her. “From an architecture–interior design background, I always wanted to go big, and my experiments would fail 98 percent of the time,” Dosier told Metropolis. “I felt like I needed to buy Chemistry for Dummies.” She explained that her mentor, a microbiologist, taught her to think about materials differently. Another mentor, an architect, set her on the idea of building bricks.

Still, Dosier’s success was almost an accident: After many failures, she threw together chemical scraps, forgot about it, and returned to find a brick had grown. But the eureka moment (and the winning of the competition) is only the beginning of the road – there’s still much more refining to be done, questions to be answered, and problems to be sorted out, before Dosier’s invention grows around the world. In essence, there’s still science to be done.

Lindsay Patterson